The Word of God that engages us today—on this Christ the King Sunday—is our Gospel read-ing, from Matthew 25. We’ve been looking at this chapter for a couple of weeks. And now we get to this section: the separation of the sheep and the goats. And it’s a difficult text. Not difficult to understand, mind you. No—we get it, loud and clear. Love your neighbor, love your King. When we serve the least of these, we are unwittingly serving Jesus. And when you don’t do these things, well, sorry. We understand the imagery and the whole concept. Love your neighbor, love your King.
This is perhaps one of the easiest of Jesus’ parables to grasp; we get the picture. But it’s precisely because we understand it so clearly that makes it difficult. What makes it difficult is our interpretation of it. What makes it difficult is what you might call a sort of “separation anxiety,” because Jesus is talking about Judgment Day, and eternity is on the line—where are you going?! What makes it difficult is…we’re Lutheran, and this Jesus just doesn’t sound very Lutheran! Not at first glance, anyway. He sounds too works-righteousy. So we stand there, like the young man asking Jesus, “What must I do to be saved?”
On the one hand, it sounds as if Jesus is offering a formula for salvation: “Do THIS in order to be saved. Do THIS in order to be a sheep. Do THIS in order to be judged righteous.” On the other hand, we know we’re saved by grace and not our good works. So, the temptation is to correct Jesus, and just brush past these words of His, as if to say “He didn’t really mean it. You can’t do anything—so do noth-ing!” But, as the story goes, when a famous preacher was once asked, “What must I do to go to hell?” The preacher responded with, “Nothing.” But it turns out Jesus isn’t exactly telling us HOW TO be saved, but WHO WILL be saved. You can do nothing to save yourself, but He still calls us to do something. So much for an easy parable!
This simple parable becomes all too difficult for us, because our human minds frame it in terms of “cause and effect.” If you do THIS, then THAT happens. We just want to know, “What must I do to be saved?” But Jesus isn’t quite speaking that way in Matthew 25. He’s not really answering that question. See, Jesus is not so much giving us a PREscription for how to be saved, but a DEscription of what it looks like to be one who is saved. As one writer put it, “A prescription is something we must do if we are to achieve a desired end. A description is a picture of the ways things are, or will be…Therefore, judgment is not a threat of something to be feared in the future, but a warning that one day all people will be revealed for what they are now…This is the surprising truth about judgment: it depends ultimately not on what we do, or fail to do, but on what we are—sheep or goats.” (Excerpts from The Divine Trap, by Richard Carl Hoefler. The C. S. S. Publishing Co., 1980.). It’s not a PREscription, but a DEscription.
So what does Jesus describe? He describes the Son of Man, the Messiah Himself, coming like a King. This King comes in all His glory. Angels surround Him—ALL the angels, it says. And all people are brought before Him, and the separating begins. How does the separating happen? Do legions of angels swoop down and grasp us, putting us in place in an instant—like vineyard workers plucking grapes at harvest? Does the King divinely divide us with His royal scepter, like Moses parting the waters with his staff? Or, maybe through simply hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd, the sheep are led away from the goats? He doesn’t exactly say how it happens...it just happens. Sheep to His right—at the hand of mercy. Goats to His left—the hand of judgment.
Notice, though, that when we look at the Son of Man’s separating the sheep and goats, they don’t become sheep or goats by His judgment. He’s simply identifying them for what they really are. It’s really all about our identity. And we see this play out as the King speaks to these two groups.
To the sheep He says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” “You who are blessed,” He says. And this is important to note, because it is vastly different from what He says to the goats. To the goats He says, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” The sheep are blessed, the goats are cursed. And I think to understand why the sheep are blessed, we first need to look at why the goats are cursed.
To understand that, look at the nature of their punishment. “Depart from Me,” says the King. It’s separation from God Himself. Eternal separation. And what is it that separates us from a right relationship with God? Sin. Where did sin come from? It has been passed on to us, from generation to generation since the fall of Adam and Eve. When they refused the Kingship of the Triune God; seeking to become like God. That fall into sin, when they were so easily tempted by the devil, that ancient serpent. So, it is not just eternal separation from God, but a separation “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Sin—that’s the dreadful curse of the goats. Unrepentant, self-centered, unrighteous sin—that’s their curse.
But the sheep…the sheep are blessed by God. And who does Jesus say are the blessed ones? We heard it at the beginning of the month; at the beginning of this sermon series. In Matthew 5, He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” those who realize they are spiritually bankrupt. “Blessed are those who mourn;” who weep at the frailty of human life, weeping at the broken relationship with our Lord. “Blessed are the meek,” who do not boast before God, but bow in fear before their King. He says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” knowing that they cannot stand before Almighty God on their own merits. “Blessed are the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers,” those who don’t confuse party affiliation with their Christian faith. He says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” fighting the good fight of faith, no matter the cost. And He says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
You see, the sheep—the blessed ones—are the Church. It’s the baptized people of God. You have been blessed, through the washing of rebirth in Baptism. You are blessed through the hearing of the Word. You are blessed through the Spirit’s continual work in Your sanctified life. You are blessed, because You are the Church. You are blessed because You have been claimed by God—bought with the blood of Jesus, brought into His family. You were once a goat, but by grace through faith, you have already been made a sheep, and placed into His sheepfold. For, “if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation, the old has gone the new has come.” You are a sheep because in Christ Your sin no longer separates You from God the Father. You are a sheep because Christ’s righteousness has become Your own. So, “Come, you who are blessed by [the] Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Because you are a sheep—thanks be to God.
It’s not a prescription, but a description. It’s all about our identity. Our identity in Christ. You can’t do anything to make yourself a sheep, yet we give evidence to the fact that we are sheep. We are sheep. We are blessed. And now, Jesus calls us to act like it. To go out and serve “the least of these.” That’s just what sheep do. That’s what the blessed do. That’s what the Church does. We go out and serve. We love our neighbor, and when we do, we also love our king. For, as Jesus said, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
There’s a story from the late nineteenth century about a couple of young men who found them-selves going door to door looking for help. A few hours before, they had disembarked from their yacht somewhere along the coast of Scotland, and decided to give themselves a little walking tour. And then, while deep in the woods, the night came. And they were lost. No map. No lanterns. As they continued wandering, they came upon a farmer’s cottage. “At last,” they thought to themselves. “This farmer will help us, and feed us, and send us in the right direction.” But although they pleaded with the farmer through the shut door, telling them how hungry and cold they were, he kept the door closed. He would not budge for them.
So, the two men continued, walking another mile or so, until they came to another cottage. It was well past midnight, but this farmer gladly woke up and helped these two strangers in the night. He fed them. Gave them a place to sleep. And the next morning, he accompanied them back to their boat. And it was only then that he was made aware of the fact that one of the two lost, cold, and hungry young men was none other than the prince, who would later become King George V of England. Two commoners presented with the same opportunity to unwittingly serve their king. If only the first farmer had known! And that’s the point. (Based on an illustration from Encyclopedia of Sermon Illustrations, compiled by David F. Burgess. Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 1988. p. 121.)
The point Jesus makes is the sheep just serve, regardless of who it is. In fact, it’s precisely be-cause they serve without expecting a reward; without realizing who it is that proves they’re sheep. We don’t love our neighbor in order to love our King, or to be loved by our King. Because that’s ultimately reducing your neighbor to just a stepping stone—a means to an end. We don’t love our neighbor in order to love our King. We love our neighbor because we love our King.
We aren’t called to serve others because we think they’re worthy. We’re called to serve others because Christ thought them worthy of dying for. We’re called to serve others because Christ thought me worth dying for. And this has real world ramifications for our lives. You may not have the next King of England come knocking on your door. But the King of kings is everywhere, knocking. The least of these are everywhere, knocking. Who are the least of these?
It’s the unborn child whose future is in jeopardy because his young mother was looking to feel loved, and that’s what she thought love looked like. At the same time, it’s the couple who so desperately want to have children but are, for unknown reasons, barren. It’s the alcoholic in the family who doesn’t know how to stop; or the girl who just one time got pulled over for having a few too many drinks. It’s the family who can’t afford insurance, but they desperately need the healthcare for their little girl. It’s the divorced man whose marriage fell apart because his job became his “mistress.” Or the guy who virtually walks out on his wife and family every time he goes online, and he just can’t help himself. It’s the refugee fleeing from a world of war, but bringing with her baggage as she walks into a world of stigma and stereotypes. It’s the kid at school who dresses in old hand-me-downs, who always seems to be untidy; the one who seems to be uninterested in the work the teacher gives, preoccupied with things at home. It’s the woman looking for her next “fix” after inadvertently becoming addicted to opiates after surgery. It’s the elderly woman whose mind isn’t what it to used to be, she can’t get around anymore, and some days this makes her hard to get along with. These, and more—they are “the least of these” Jesus talks about. And He calls us, the sheep to action. To reach out in love and mercy.
I could keep on going with that list, but I think you get the idea. I could keep on going, in fact, for every person in this room. For we are all sheep, yes. But we are all the least of these, too. Be-cause, let’s face it, some days you just don’t feel like you’re “blessed.” Some days, it’s all you can do to put up the façade as you sit there in the pew, trying to make it look like you’ve got it together. Some days, you just don’t feel like you’re part of the flock, as if you’ve wandered too far, this time, and there’s nothing you can do.
But it’s in these moments that I want you to remember that you can’t make yourself a sheep. But God in Christ has. Remember, your identity is not in what you do, but in what Christ has done, and who He has made you to be. Your King has died for you; He rose for you, and for all the least of these. And He promises to come back for You, His little, least of these sheep. And He will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Until that day, continue to live like a sheep. Until that day, continue to live that blessed life—because He has called you blessed, even when you don’t feel like it. Until He returns on the last day, BE the church. Love your neighbor, love your King.
Come soon, Lord Jesus. Amen.